Ever since Electronic Arts' Madden NFL games were ported to the PC in 1996, thousands of football fans wait almost as eagerly for the arrival of the newest edition of the megahit series as they do for the start of the football season. But even as gamers line up at software outlets to buy the newest version, they're wondering two things: how much better it is than the previous installment, and whether or not it's got the stuff to become the undisputed champ of PC football sims.
In the case of Madden NFL 99, the answer to the first question is simple: This is unquestionably the best edition ever, with significant and welcome improvements in every conceivable category. Gamers with good 3D cards (Direct3D and Glide versions are both available) and plenty of computing muscle (EA Sports recommends a 300MHz Pentium) will be treated to graphics and animations that are head and shoulders above anything else I've seen in a PC football sim. The level of detail here is mind-boggling - you can see the ripples in thigh pads, steam emerging from players' helmets as they breathe in cold weather, torsos expanding as winded players gulp for air, dead-on-the-money renderings of every NFL stadium, and uniforms that are picture-perfect both in color (something some games seem to have a problem with) and textures. Running at 1024x768 on a high-end system, Madden NFL 99 offers the sort of visuals that make it worth loading up just to show your friends how good a sports game can look - especially if you check out the incredibly detailed animations in the instant replay mode. (Note: some players have reported major slowdowns over the course of a game when playing on grass fields, and EA has apparently acknowledged the problem and said it would be fixed with a patch - but I never saw any major degradation in performance.)
The motion-captured animations are stunningly smooth, and while some fans might say that the players don't move with enough speed, the truth is that most of us wouldn't be able to control a video-game player that's hauling butt as fast as a real-life NFL running back or receiver. Tackle and running animations when playing in the game's traditional mode are slightly lackluster compared with the exaggerated hits and slippery jitterbug moves found in the arcade mode, but the reason for that is probably because the arcade game features (or should I say is handicapped by?) a mere handful of offensive and defensive plays to choose from, and is therefore much less AI-intensive for the computer-controlled players.
Another area where Madden NFL 99 shows vast improvement is in its control options. I was disappointed that Madden NFL '98 featured support for only four buttons, but thankfully EA Sports took note and vastly increased the number of moves at your fingertips in the '99 edition. In addition to supporting ten-button controllers like the Gravis Gamepad Pro and Microsoft's SideWinder Gamepad, there's also a one-button mode that automatically selects receivers, makes tackles, and chooses special moves like jukes, spins, and hurdles on offense and swim moves and power moves on defense. Mouse control works pretty much the same way, except you guide players by moving the mouse and click a mouse button to perform an action. But EA Sports really dropped the ball in configuration for the SideWinder gamepad by not taking time to alter the layout of buttons for play calling and selecting receivers; the "X" button rather than the "A" is the Number 1 button, and while you can switch which actions a button performs (snap the ball, juke, etc.), there's absolutely no way to alter which buttons select specific plays and receivers. The result is an unnecessarily confusing setup that serves only to prove that developers are getting more and more lackadaisical about tweaking PC versions of cross-platform games.
But how does Madden perform once it gets out on the field? Well, one thing's for sure: You won't be waltzing your way to one Super Bowl ring after another unless you play on the lowest difficulty setting. This is far and away the most challenging computer opponent ever in a Madden game for the PC, leading some gamers to think their sudden inability to score as easily or as regularly as in past titles is because the computer is cheating - understandable, given how quickly defensive backs can converge on receivers while the ball's in the air and how quickly holes close at the line of scrimmage. But the more time I spend with Madden NFL 99 (and I've already invested quite a bit), the more I become convinced that it's simply a lot more realistic than previous versions. Racking up 100 yards rushing or 300 yards passing is a real achievement in the NFL, and it's just as much a prize in Madden NFL 99. I'll be the first to admit that Madden '99 can be frustrating at first, but once you start playing with some guile by making appropriate substitutions and working all areas of the field, you'll start seeing enough success that frustration turns to challenge.
And there are some quirks out on the gridiron that will have even experienced players scratching their helmets. Interception rates seem to be overly high; when I controlled the Vikings against Green Bay in the NFC Championship, for instance, I threw six in the first half alone. While it's admirable that Madden '99 has a slew of camera angles, it's silly that EA Sports got rid of the standard view mode - one that I've always said was one of the best in a football game and crucial to successful execution of passing plays - that was zoomed out just enough so you could see the receivers before the snap of the ball. Maybe they did it so you wouldn't see computer-controlled defenders getting away with pass interference and illegal contact beyond five yards - offenses you'll often get flagged for if you breathe too hard on the receiver. Then there's what I call the "ball magnet" that envelops players at skill positions: Watch a tricky catch or interception on instant replay, and you can actually see the ball stop and then zoom on a straight line to the player. And while weather effects like rain and snow are achingly beautiful to behold, they don't seem to have any effect on footing - I've never seen anyone slide and fall because of mud or ice.
Still, Madden NFL 99 is a big leap forward for the franchise - but is it enough to catapult it to the top of the genre? Personally, I've always rated it the best all-around football game for the PC; I loved the simulation and strategy of Sierra's FPS:FB Pro series, but out on the field it was a sloppy mess for gamers like me who want to control the action as well as call the shots from the front office. For fans who care more about coaching and general manager duties than arcade-style antics on the field, FPS: FB Pro has always been the game of choice - which undoubtedly explains the addition of a franchise mode in Madden NFL 99, as well as a play editor and a fantasy draft option. Unfortunately, we might have to wait for the next edition before these modes reach the level of excellence of the on-field play.
Take the franchise mode, for example. Only one team can be controlled by a human during franchise play, which eliminates any chance of proving your managerial and coaching mettle in a head-to-head battle with friends. Even against the computer, though, you're not able to really prove your stuff. At the start of the season there are absolutely zero injuries - handy for players who want to take the low road to success, but highly unrealistic when you consider the losses teams incur during training camp and preseason. When a season ends, you see some players retire before you're taken to a screen to re-sign free agents - but you have to negotiate and sign contracts with these veterans without having any idea what other free agents or hot rookie prospects will be available to take their place! Given the fact that a lot of big-name free agents don't re-sign with their team until well into training camp (and sometimes afterwards), forcing you to make those important big-money decisions as soon as the regular season ends (and before the draft) is out-and-out ridiculous.
The entire interface for contract negotiations and trades is the same as in the console versions, and it's difficult to use efficiently because it doesn't take advantage of standard conventions like sizable windows or the ability to print out the information - you're constantly switching back and forth to see who's available for the roster spots you need filled. And while it's a given that a game like this will have an option to create players, I couldn't find an option anywhere to edit existing players' stats (or name, number, or anything else). That's a drag, because it means the only way to re-create how good a player is in real life is to delete the old one and create a new guy with the same name but more accurate stats (Randy Moss is the perfect example). Speaking of names, the rosters that came with the game are woefully out of date - this in spite of the fact that the game hit retail shelves a good three weeks into the NFL season. There's an option included to download the latest rosters, but with six weeks behind us those rosters still weren't up at EA's Madden web site. At least it's easy to assign the appropriate players to positions and formations, something that NFL GameDay '99 bungled beyond belief.
This is the first version of Madden with a play editor - and it too is hampered by being identical to its video-game brethren. Compared with the wonderfully simple yet powerfully flexible play editor in ABC Monday Night Football or the mind-boggling array of commands at your disposal in FBS: FB Pro, the play editor in Madden NFL 99 is so limited in scope and is so clumsy to use that it's hardly worth the effort.
The one thing that almost every PC football fan wanted to see in the latest Madden game, though, was better multiplayer support - and while I've heard rumors of people having success with Internet games, I certainly can't confirm them. When I tried to start an Internet game, I received a message that said "TCP/IP not available" even though I was logged on to the Net and could see my IP address. So I checked with tech support, who said I shouldn't be connected to the Internet, that Madden '99 would find my dial-up adapter and launch the connection process - but when I tried that I got the same message. Modem play was much less of a hassle, a lot better in fact than in past EA games where just getting the modem to dial was a major achievement. But even if I had gotten the game to recognize my TCP/IP connection, there's still no good spot to meet and find opponents; as big as EA is, I think it's only reasonable that at the very least it should host a matching service and chat room where players can arrange games and exchange IP addresses.
Luckily, making management decisions and designing new plays has never been my pigskin forte, so the limitations of the franchise mode and play editor are things I can deal with - but they do keep Madden NFL 99 from being the be-all and end-all of football sims. Then again, I'm not sure that any single game will ever lay claim to that title: It's basically a question of pleasing all the people all the time, and we all know how tough that is. But at least EA's taking steps in the right direction with Madden NFL 99 - and the rest of the game delivers so much action and challenge that I'm more than happy to stick with it while the kinks get ironed out.